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PRAGMATISM AND POLITICS 

BY WARWICK CHIPMAN 
Montreal, Canada 

It may seem paradoxical to suggest, of a doctrine essentially impa- 
tient of the absolute, that it bids fair to become the chief bulwark of 
an absolutism the more tyrannical because it is false. Yet a democ- 
racy forgetting freedom, and a philosophy careless of principles, do, 
in fact, go hand in hand together. Nowhere better than in politics 
could the pragmatic creed be applied; and nowhere does it become 
more immediately clear that pragmatism has no creed. In this it is 
the motto of democracy in action, which is abandoning more and more 
not only creeds as creeds, but even the very creed that brought it into 
being. 

In doing so, democracy threatens to entrammel men for a time 
more effectively than ever they were trammelled in the past, through 
the very optimism of its crude practicality; seeking to achieve in one 
generation, and by extraneous rules, the blessings which only the long 
discipline of character can ever bring to the world. Lovers of liberty, 
then, if they would serve her now, must see that a philosophy without 
a standard, a wisdom that will not criticise, a doctrine that will not 
lead, is the greatest foe of all they have to fight. 

An irreverent critic once remarked that doubtless we should all like 
to be pragmatists if only we knew what we should be if we were prag- 
matists. I am sure that it would be very easy for any accommodating 
person to find out that he was on the whole a pragmatist. But with 
a full reserve of my right to be accommodating on some other occasion, 
the present purpose requires a sterner frame of mind. Pragmatism 
is a big belief quite satisfactory to those only whose belief is still bigger. 
It is, I take it, the doctrine that an idea is true if it works. But 
inasmuch as not all that works is worth working; inasmuch as not all 
that works for to-day, works in the long run; inasmuch as it is as well 
to know, before practical demonstration, whether or not we are working 
with temporal dynamite; and inasmuch as Pragmatism considers none 
of these things: I wish to suggest that it is not altogether admirable 
when applied to politics. 

189 



190 PROCEEDINGS OF THE 

At first sight it must appear ungrateful to quarrel with a school that 
proclaims faith as the greatest of human forces. For no one could 
ask a better inspiration. But what is the faith that is to be this force? 
Here Pragmatism is silent, giving us a handle, but no tool. Strange, 
then, that its most brilliant exponent should begin his lectures upon it 
by this quotation from Mr. Chesterton: "There are some people — 
and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and impor- 
tant thing about a man is still his view of the universe. . . . We 
think that for a general about to fight an enemy it is important to know 
the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's 
philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the 
cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run anything else 
affects matters." — Where so much is granted to theory, what, may we 
ask, is left to practicality? 

In point of fact, however, the quotation from Mr. Chesterton is most 
inapplicable to Pragmatism, which usually is careful to disclaim any 
attitude so superior, so dogmatic, as the theoretical. It is unsparing 
in its criticism of the absolute, because the absolute does not achieve. 
It has an utter contempt for all the treatises "on God and Love and 
Being, helplessly existing in their monumental vacuity." There is, 
indeed, a certain amount of justification for this standpoint. A 
philosophy, above all a political philosophy, which exalts the human 
will but never dallies with short cuts to human victory, which bids 
men enter by the door and not climb up some other way, is apt to 
leave considerably comfortless those children of men who could per- 
haps be wiser in their generation than the children of light. Idealism 
mends no broken hearts. It is no lasting substitute for bread and 
butter. If we seek in it the omnipotent prescriptions of quackery, we 
shall not find them. But while it cannot profess to cure the evils of 
this world, it does attempt to prevent them. It strives to teach the 
principles that in the long run will do away not with broken hearts 
but with the breaking of them, not with physical starvation but with 
the moral and spiritual conditions that lead to it. Compared with so 
fundamental a practicality, what has Pragmatism to show? A 
method which concentrates on mere success, and which fails to judge 
between this success and that, is, to the extent of such a failure, not 
practical enough. 

The chief quarrel of Pragmatism with the Absolute is its alleged 
supreme indifference to what the particular facts in our world really 
are. "Be they what they may, the Absolute will father them. Like 



AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSOCIATION 191 

the sick lion in Aesop's fable, all footsteps lead into his den, but 
nulla vestigia retrorsum. You cannot redescend into the world of 
particulars by the Absolute's aid, or deduce any necessary consequences 
of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature. He 
gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with him, and for 
his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely 
saved by your own temporal devices." 

Now this is very true of certain phases of philosophy, and the more is 
the pity. But is it not in some measure true of Pragmatism itself? 
Anything may go into the den of the doctrine that anything is true if 
it works, that anything will work that is worked, and therefore that 
anything is true. But what is the practical result of this stupendous 
syllogism? What is to be worked? What shall we choose from among 
infinite possibilities? On what grounds shall we choose? 

A standard we must have, and a standard must be taught us by a 
philosophy with any pretensions to the name. When the pragmatist 
declares that "what is better for us to believe is true unless the belief 
incidentally clashes with some other vital benefit," he admits the necessity 
of a standard. Indeed, the pragmatist is continually going far beyond 
the borders of Pragmatism, and in so doing is making it clear that in 
order to be a good pragmatist you must be infinitely more. Thus 
Dr. James, when he says "The notion of God has this practical superi- 
ority . . . that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be per- 
manently preserved," and again: "This need of an external moral 
order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. The absolute things, 
the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic con- 
cerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with 
the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man." 

The only trouble is that not every pragmatist is a good pragmatist; 
and that Pragmatism is apt to be hailed by many as a brilliant unim- 
peachable angel succouring and justifying the shorter view. They are 
apt to find in it the expression of their own resolve to be shallow, and 
to make it the splendid banner of their thoughtlessness. They are 
happy to proclaim their very want of method as itself a method; and, 
in repulsing attacks upon their rough and ready means to uncon- 
sidered ends, they eagerly find in Pragmatism their sanction and their 
name. 

"The influence of democracy in promoting Pragmatism," said the 
Edinburgh Review, "is visible in almost every page of William James's 
writing. There is an impatience of authority, an unwillingness to 



192 PROCEEDINGS OF THE 

condemn widespread prejudices, a tendency to decide philosophical 
questions by putting them to the vote, which contrast curiously with 
the usual dictatorial tone of philosophic writings. Dr. Schiller at one 
time set to work to elucidate the question of a future life by taking a 
poll. William James claims for the pragmatist temper 'the open air 
and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the 
pretence of finality in truth.' A thing which simply is true, whether 
you like it or not, is to him as hateful as a Russian autocracy." 

Now, it is quite true that at stated intervals democracy still pays its 
homage to freedom as a standard. It is quite true that democracy 
praises its constitutions, amid great applause, as the guardians of 
freedom. But more and more as we see Democracy at work, we find 
that freedom is quite forgotten in the exaltation of some shibboleth that 
has no meaning save as a means to freedom; that some constitutional 
abstraction is insisted on as an end in itself; that the immediate wishes 
of the people are considered as ends in themselves, and suffer no criti- 
cism from the standpoint of that liberty which, in politics, can be the 
only ultimate and lasting aim. 

And what are the results, as unexpected as the acts themselves are 
uninformed? 

Take, for an example, universal suffrage. As a notion and a name 
it has to do with liberty, but as a result does it increase the number of 
men able to protect their freedom, or does it, when exercised too soon, 
increase only the number of those able to override the freedom of 
others? Does it mean one man, one vote? Or does it mean that the 
practical politician who formerly manipulated forty votes to his own 
undemocratic purposes will thereafter manipulate forty score? 

Or take the cry for the recall of the judges, which is greeting the ears 
of some of us on this Continent. Here we have in its most glaring 
form the notion that voting is an end in itself, and that Democracy 
exists as a system in order that its momentary likes and dislikes 
may be exalted at the expense of all stability, consistency and order. 
The doctrine upon which was founded the chief, the most weighty, 
the most respected judicial body in the United States, that freedom 
was best served by making the dispensers of the law independent 
of popular clamour and of class interests, is to be laid aside without 
any reference to the real meaning and needs of freedom. 

It would almost seem as though Democracy might prefer to do 
away with the judges altogether and to substitute the pronouncement 
of a maj ority, through the medium of the daily press. We have recently 



AMBKICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSOCIATION 193 

seen the edifying spectacle of a large class of persons, who keep Democ- 
racy in their pockets, first of all subsidizing the defense of certain men 
accused of murder, and then, when defense became impossible, and 
when they were convinced that there had been, as their odd phrase put 
it, "a crime against unionism as well as against humanity," facing 
about and forming what is called "a country-wide movement to 
obtain the maximum punishment of these men," without any thought 
or reference either to the law which as citizens they set up, or to the 
judges whom equally they appoint to administer it. 

Oddly enough the same Democracy, constituting itself both judge 
and jury, is unable to supply from among its numbers twelve good men 
and true to try the case at close range. A cause cSUbre is presented 
to an astonished country in which the chief witness for the prosecution 
gives his testimony before an association of bankers; the advocate for 
the defense harangues not the Court but the newspapers; and the 
judge is besought to do anything but try the case and give the judg- 
ment. To such a pass does the pragmatic spirit bring those consti- 
tutional forms which an age-long struggle for reasonable safeguards of 
freedom has so laboriously attained. 

Let it be remembered, too, that at the very moment when Democracy 
seems about to take over a part of the constitution in which it was 
never schooled, it is abandoning to arbitrary committees just those 
subjects which it ought most assiduously to control. In the judicial 
sphere of the state where expert administrators could far better main- 
tain rights and prevent infringements than could any interested and 
short-seeing voters, an arbitrary ballot is to supplant an impartial 
arbiter. But of that department, embracing taxation and the free- 
dom of contract, where universal interest is the surest ally of liberty, 
commissions, discretionary and domineering, are to be handed the 
charge. 

In Canada, a new government proposes to put the tariff under the 
control of a commission. It will entrust to an executive body what 
should never be taken out of the sphere of parliamentary debate. 
It will turn into a department what ought to be the most constant of 
political issues. It will compromise the State, as far as can be seen, 
by the inherent views of only one of the political parties; and, by so 
doing, will be the most effective means of preventing any criticism of 
those views. All this will be done in the name of practicality, by men 
who have never considered for a moment the bearing of it all upon 
their constitution and their liberty. 

13 



194 PBOCEEDINGS OF THE 

To speak of the regulation of great corporations now being so elabo- 
rately considered on this Continent would require a volume at least. 
Perhaps it may yet be discovered by the people at large, or rather by 
those who will influence the people at large, that it is vain to attempt 
the cure of diseases, where you authorize, by high protection, the con- 
ditions that bring about these diseases. To those who believe firmly 
in this, there can be no patience with the foundationless practicality 
that first of all creates a vested interest by a taxation which is an 
infringement of the liberty of every one of us without furthering the 
necessary ends of the State, and that then interferes with the new 
rights which it brought into being. But where no one will dare to 
preach the true theory of the State, where everybody desires to do 
only that which is immediately practical, freedom must continue to 
suffer, in spite of all the statues, and all the orations. 

Similarly with regard to the commissions which are being formed to 
deal with the contracts between consumers and monopolies. How 
far these bodies will help to maintain the liberty of contract, how far 
they will really hinder it, are immense questions; but before these 
questions are considered, we are all hurrying into legislation, with the 
sole desire to be practical. In the discussions that take place from time 
to time with regard to the governmental supervision of public service 
corporations, you will find an infinity of speech upon the meaning of 
the phrases: "Going Concern," "Good will," "Fair profit," and the 
like: You will find almost nothing with regard to the function of the 
State, the liberty of the subject, and the propriety of resigning to the 
discretion of a few what should be under the discussion of the whole. 
In so far as these Commissions do serve liberty, Democracy has made a 
confession of failure. The trouble is that Democracy does not know 
it. 

But an essay cannot attempt to say what it took Mr. Lecky a book 
to declare. Let me simply quote for my purposes now his conclusions 
on this very subject of Democracy and liberty. "In our day," he 
says, "no fact is more incontestable and conspicuous than the love of 
Democracy for authoritative regulation. The two things that men in 
middle age have seen most discredited among their contemporaries are 
probably free contract and free trade. The great majority of the 
democracies of the world are now frankly protectionist, and even in 
free trade countries the multiplication of laws regulating, restricting 
and interfering with industry in all its departments is one of the most 
marked characteristics of our time." 



AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSOCIATION 195 

Let me also quote, in comment, this from a recent speech of the 
Dean of St. Paul's: 

"The first duty of any one who wants to understand the signs of the 
times is a critical examination of current shibboleths and catchwords. 
It is quite as easy to hypnotize oneself into imbecility by repeating in 
solemn tones 'progress, democracy, corporate unity,' as by repeating 
the blessed word Mesopotamia. Democracy is perhaps the silliest of 
all the fetishes that is worshipped among us. The method of counting 
heads instead of breaking them is no doubt convenient as a rough and 
ready test of strength, and no doubt government must rest mainly on 
force. It is also arguable that democracy is at present a good instru- 
ment for procuring social justice and educating citizens in civic duty, 
but that is really all that any one has a right to say. To talk to the 
average member of Parliament one might suppose that the ballot-box 
was a sort of Urim Thummim for ascertaining the Divine will. This 
superstitution is simply our old friend the divine right of Kings stand- 
ing on its head. It is even more ridiculous in the new posture than in 
the old. There is absolutely no guarantee in the nature of things 
that the decision of the majority will be either wise or just, yet this 
ridiculous fetish stands grinning in our faces, and the whole nation 
burns incense before it." 

My point then is that Pragmatism is merely a philosophical expres- 
sion of all this, and a means to crown it with a dignity which otherwise 
it would lack. In consequence it is the more astonishing that Prag- 
matism should quote from Mr. Chesterton as to the immense import 
of plain theory. For Mr. Chesterton is quite right when you apply 
his statement to politics. It is another part of the present subject 
to show that the only ultimate power in politics is an idea, a theory, a 
principle, not a rule. Nothing is an end in itself; and where that is 
overlooked, there is no power. The sanction of the State is nothing 
unless based upon a greater sanction than itself. There is a standard 
of liberty by whose criticisms we must in the long run abide or we can 
make no progress. There is a force, invisible, inexhaustible, whose 
ends alone are supreme, and in touch with which alone our narrower 
ends can lastingly survive. 

The wisest of kings said long ago that the very true beginning of 
wisdom was the desire of discipline. He meant the readiness to be 
led by great principles; and the scorn of a practice that had no creed 
behind it, and no eternal path before; of a Pragmatism that did not 
know where it was going, or why, or how. In what way can that 



196 PROCEEDINGS OP THE 

discipline come, by what possibility can it bring us to the Kingdom of 
our best and happiest, in a state where the only test of truth and of 
good is the power to accomplish quick and limited ends? How are 
we to achieve liberty if the mere power of a majority is to be exalted 
over the power of ultimate things; if the appeal is to be made to the 
essential tyranny of men, rather than to their overwhelming necessity 
for freedom? The more we ask these questions, the more we know 
that the greatest need of a Democracy, to-day as always, is an aris- 
tocracy, building advance on criticism; and preaching that truth and 
that good which, if they are made one with the universe, can never be 
taken away. 

That such a truth is already recognized by the State will be abun- 
dantly clear to those who, turning from the spasmodic turmoil of 
Democracy, will watch the sober progress of the common law. Democ- 
racies and majorities are accustomed to think of the law as the creature 
of law makers. Happily for freedom, happily for those who wish to 
guard in themselves that which they never attack in others, happily 
for all who wish to see the characters and commonwealth of men 
advance by a discipline which no machinery can teach, society is held 
together and governed, in the last resort, not by the might of numbers, 
not by the assertion of arbitrary power, but by the quiet sovereignty 
of an idea. 

We may see it in continual action; we may see it in continual restraint 
of action. We may know it as the constant critic of all other ideas, 
however pragmatic. We may know it as something vastly bigger, 
more far-reaching, more authoritative, than all codes, statutes, 
precedents, and rules. If all the legislatures and all the voters were to 
attempt to create a law of obligations that took no account of this idea, 
how futile in the end would be their bills, ordinances, and votes! If, 
when watching the interminable procession of deeds, titles and con- 
tracts, lawyers were to wish, by some wayward agreement, to consider 
harmless all flaws and irregularities, how simply they could agree, 
how unalterably they cannot! How irresistably it would appear that 
the legal principles which govern the greater part of daily life are not 
the arbitrary inventions of particular communities: they are community 
itself. 

And more than this. The Courts are beginning to recognize, although 
rightly they do not administer, the very essence of the moral law. 
They are beginning to declare that if a man does not fulfill a moral 
duty he may lose a legal right; that by failing to do as he would be done 



AMEBICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE ASSOCIATION 197 

by he may limit the extent to which he can make the State his instru- 
ment. This attitude is purely negative. It does not move one step 
beyond the point of refusing redress in certain circumstances. It 
leaves to private will the doing of what one ought, and to private 
punishment, the consequences of not so doing. But it recognizes for 
State and citizens alike, arising out of the inexhaustible maze of 
practical affairs, the serene domination of a power beyond and above 
the State, determining its dealings, sanctioning its awards. 

To that power, free and necessarily recognized as free, belongs the 
discipline of this world, discovering that only when all willingly do their 
best by their fellows can we have a civilization and a happiness which 
shall stand; and that only the universal rule of such morality can put 
an end to the particular evils of men. Every other government that 
men may devise must fail: this alone can succeed. Every other must 
be judged by its fruits: this alone dominates fulfillment. Every other 
is abstract and provisional: this, only, is concrete and endures. 

If, then, the law of the State inevitably admits the law of liberty 
around it, we may be sure that every expression of the wills of men, 
and every instrument of that expression, including Democracy itself, 
must finally bow to judgment. "Until they do; until they acknowledge 
the law that is the only master of all because it is the only servant of 
all; until they know the limits of the State in the sphere of obligations: 
any constitution under any name can and will be tyrannical. In the 
long run, there is but one power to preserve men from absolutism. 
That power is the absolute itself.